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Funding, details hurt fixed-route bus plan

John Matta

By A Contributor

This letter is to clear the confusion created by Jayme Morris-Hardeman’s letter Sunday regarding signage for a fixed-route bus system. Ms. Hardeman stated that the Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency has obtained funding from KDOT and local funding partners that do not include the City of Manhattan for a fixed-route bus system.

ATA has not provided the city any detailed plans or firm funding commitment information regarding the subject. The ATA simply sent a memo to the mayor stating it had such funding, but the minimal detail provided proved to be inaccurate and was not in enough detail to warrant consideration. In addition, the memo cited the plan designed by the City of Manhattan as the operating plan. That operating plan had certain organizational assumptions that will need to be revised to go along with any new funding sources.

At the City Commission retreat in January, a majority of the commission made it clear that they did not want to reconsider a fixed-route bus system, or even right-of-way consideration, until we were provided details of exactly how it would be funded. It was stated that multi-year financial commitments were needed. When the original plan failed, it was stated that it was not the minimal initial cost of the program to the city that was the reason for rejecting it. The reason was based on the performance history of such systems across the country and in Kansas. These systems have almost invariably become financial burdens to their communities.

Topeka, Kansas City and Wichita are all having financial issues, as are more than 85 percent of all such systems nationwide. Nationally and statewide, one of the first increased cost drivers are salary and benefit expenses. The original plan submitted by ATA had wages well below that of Topeka personnel and no benefits for employees.

Given Manhattan’s higher cost of living compared to Topeka and ATA’s wages below what the Manhattan Living Wage Coalition recommends, I can see the Manhattan system following the same cost escalation pattern.

Of course, I am not a fan of the Living Wage Coalition or its efforts to create a city minimum wage, but I have noticed that many of the bus system proponents like Ms. Morris-Hardeman are. The system would be predominately taxpayer funded, which fits right in with the criteria the Living Wage Coalition uses for demanding higher wages and benefits.

The other ongoing cost concerns include insurance, gas, maintenance and reductions in state and federal subsidies. The original proposal’s budget was over 90 percent subsidized using local, state and federal dollars. We all know of the pressures on state and federal budgets. I also think we all know who will be expected to pick up the tab as costs go up and state and federal subsidies go down — the local taxpayer.

Ms. Morris-Hardeman stated that a fixed-route transit system was vital to the economic health of our community and was identified as a top priority for the future of Manhattan. However, during the past election, the three candidates on record as not in support of the system won and the two who were for the system lost. I talked to a lot of people at forums, coffees and door-to-door.

I did not find much support for the system and I was very clear on my position. I am willing to look at new approaches, but I want to know the details before devoting more time and resources to the issue.

John Matta is a member of the Manhattan City Commission.

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